TORONTO — The sight of the champs stopped Kyle Lowry mid-sentence.
The Toronto Raptors point guard was responding to a question about Draymond Green’s defensive credentials Wednesday when the Golden State Warriors strolled past the makeshift podium in the bowels of Scotiabank Arena. Lowry, 33, has spent 13 seasons in the NBA, and he even played with Green, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson for USA Basketball in the 2016 Olympics. Yet he still paused to stare at the parade of talent, resuming his answer once Stephen Curry, DeMarcus Cousins and the rest of the Warriors had marched on to their locker room.
Lowry and the Raptors franchise are both making their NBA Finals debuts this week, so “pinch yourself” moments like this one are inevitable. Toronto, though, appears as ready as it will ever be for its turn on center stage when the Finals open with Game 1 on Thursday.
The Raptors’ home arena, long adorned with statues and framed photographs of Toronto Maple Leaf legends, already sports a pair of murals celebrating Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater against the Philadelphia 76ers. Media members from across Canada stood shoulder to shoulder along one sideline, snapping photos as Leonard and his teammates went through light shooting drills on a court surrounded by NBA Finals signs. And Raptors president Masai Ujiri welcomed a packed house of journalists from around the world with a figurative bear hug, calling this week an “exciting time for us and the city,” hailing a fan base brimming with “excitement, passion, energy,” and declaring that he was “excited to get started.”
Whether all that eager anticipation helps the Raptors get off on the right foot remains to be seen, but the scene was validation aplenty for Ujiri’s bold vision and the fan base’s loyalty. The Raptors rode Kawhi Leonard to a 12-6 run through the Eastern Conference playoffs, pulling off second-half comebacks and prevailing in close games when previous incarnations had faded and crumbled.
While Leonard is easily Toronto’s best player, Lowry is the one who put the Raptors in position to swing a blockbuster trade for the all-star forward last summer. Lowry’s combination of playmaking and hard-nosed defense has driven six straight playoff appearances and helped Toronto compile the five winningest seasons of its 24-year history in the past five years. Meanwhile, Lowry’s willingness to sacrifice has been crucial to this Finals run, first by getting over the departures of Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan, and then by welcoming Nick Nurse, a first-time NBA head coach, and by allowing Leonard to rule as the offense’s number one option.
These were not trivial changes. Casey, the longtime Raptors coach, was the first to coax an all-star season out of Lowry. DeRozan, an all-star guard dealt to the San Antonio Spurs in the deal for Leonard, was Lowry’s close friend and longtime backcourt partner.
By parting with both last summer after losing in the playoffs to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third straight year, Ujiri made two logical and sound decisions in his attempt to take the next step. Correct decisions aren’t always popular ones, however, and dismissing two core members of Toronto’s most successful era created the potential for hurt feelings and dented egos.
“Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan are part of our journey and how far this has come,” Ujiri said. "[Kyle and I] have had our ups and downs, but we sat down and really talked about what we wanted to accomplish. It’s a tough conversation, but these are conversations that you have to have. I did understand how Kyle felt when we made the trade. DeMar is his best friend. That’s the toughest part of the business. I’ve seen [Lowry] grow as a person, as a leader. ... There’s something about that guy that I just believe in. It’s incredible. We have been through so much and he’s a winner.”
For the Raptors to upset the Warriors, who are making their fifth straight Finals appearance and seeking their fourth title under Coach Steve Kerr, they will need Leonard to be the best player in the series.
But they will also be counting on Lowry. His three-point shooting will be key to keeping up with Golden State’s top-ranked postseason offense. His command and distribution instincts are necessary to keep Toronto’s tertiary scoring threats involved. His on-ball defendingand gamesmanship help set the tone for a defense that suffocated the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals.
More than anything, beating the Warriors will require composure of two sorts: steadiness to deal with their unrelenting speed, and confidence in the face of their overwhelming talent. Lowry has occasionally came undone with sloppy stretches and shooting slumps in previous postseasons, and the Raptors were at their most vulnerable when their point guard has struggled. To maximize its home-court advantage, Toronto will need Lowry, a lightning rod during trying times, to protect the ball and control the pace so that Golden State can’t unleash its signature scoring runs.
“We heard all of it,” Ujiri said of the criticism that came during previous playoff shortcomings. “We have been trying to prepare for this moment, and it’s been a grind. We get mocked. People talk about us in different ways, but for us that’s the growth, those are the things that we have to go through. ... It’s going to be crazy here tomorrow. It’s going to be crazy here on Sunday. It’s going to be crazy here for a few days because that’s the mentality of our fan base.”
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